An interesting primary race has developed to determine the Democratic nominee in the 1st Congressional District, who will face incumbent Republican Rick Crawford in November. Early voting in all primaries around Arkansas is under way.
Scott Ellington, the popular prosecutor from Jonesboro who sports dark-rimmed glasses, appears to be a natural fit for the role. He is fairly well known, particularly up on top of Crowley’s Ridge, and he has managed to position himself as a moderate Democrat without taking much of a stand on any significant issues. His remarks have mostly been about his desire to create jobs for the district — a goal shared by all the candidates.
However, one event from last summer still looms like a large shadow over Ellington’s candidacy — his role in the deal that resulted in the release of the three men known as the West Memphis Three.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Arkansas who does not have an opinion on the gruesome murders of the three young boys in West Memphis back in 1993. The subsequent trial and conviction of the three men charged with the crimes captivated the state and the nation and drew additional media attention as a result of a three-part documentary series on HBO.
The long saga came to an abrupt and unexpected end last August when it was announced that Ellington had reached an "Alford Plea" agreement with the attorneys for the three. This rarely used legal maneuver allowed the three convicted men to plead guilty while still maintaining their innocence in exchange for being released from prison immediately.
Recently, Ellington acknowledged that part of the motivation for working out the deal was an economic one. It was likely that appeals would have resulted in a new trial. That could have led to the men’s exoneration and a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit. Ellington’s deal allowed them to go free and save the state the liability.
This is not the first time someone connected with the infamous case has run for office. In 2010, former WM3 prosecutor John Fogleman made an unsuccessful bid for the Arkansas Supreme Court. WM3 protestors disrupted his announcement event.
That same year, former WM3 judge David Burnett was elected to the state Senate, where he is unopposed for re-election.
It is unclear if Ellington will experience the fate of Fogleman or the success of Burnett. A Talk Business poll revealed that Democratic primary voters are fairly evenly split in their opinion on the decision. Most of those who believe the three men are innocent favor the deal, while those believe they are guilty oppose it.
But if Ellington gets past his primary opponents, state Rep. Clark Hall and ASU economist Gary Latanich, it seems likely the shadow of the WM3 case will follow Ellington into November.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog, The Tolbert Report, is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.